Fred Gieger was a good friend to me in High School. Nowhere near as close to me as my two best friends Steve and Justin, but I valued the relationship very much. Fred was the quarterback of the varsity football team, and I had never known anyone personally who was a jock or popular. He was both.
When he started having trouble with his grades in History class, he came to me because I had a reputation as someone who was good with a video camera. Back then, that was a lot more rare than it is today. I could make mini-movies to show in class that amused teachers and classmates and got me extra credit. So I made one for Fred and let him take all the credit, and he never forgot me for it.
I grew up to become the writer/editor for a national magazine (before the magazine folded and I became A Driving Fool). Fred rolled into high finance on Wall Street, and though our paths did not cross again for many years we stayed in touch. When I had to take a business trip to Manhattan, I called him to say I was coming and he was thrilled. He insisted on taking me out to dinner and to see a Broadway show. I was excited, as I’d always harbored a secret wish to see a musical on Broadway. It was near the top of my Bucket list.
The day I arrived, there was a limo waiting for me at JFK. I planned to arrange my own transportation, but Fred had beat me to the punch. I went to my meetings, and then at the end of the day went to his office. He showed me around, and I went to the observation deck of the building to get a good look at the city from a bird’s eye view. Fred told me that he had quite a night planned for us. He said he had tried hard to get us tickets to see the musical comedy THE PRODUCERS, but that it was nearly impossible to procure them. But he said we’d see another show, and our evening began.
We drank and talked and laughed for hours. We went out for dinner, and it was one of the most amazing meals that I’ve ever consumed. The fun never ended, and we had such a good time that we ended up not making it to the theatre in time to see our show. Normally, I would have been very disappointed, but I was having such a grand time that it didn’t seem to matter much at all.
Although I had a hotel room paid for by my magazine, we ended up back at Fred’s place. He insisted that I sleep on his couch, and I was in no mood to argue. We were both a bit beyond tipsy. I told him that I had to catch a flight at 6:30am, and he promised to set an alarm for me.
Then the conversation took a rather surprising turn. “You know what, Bill? You really do mean a lot to me. I know you may think it’s the liquor talking, but it’s not. Maybe the liquor is making my tongue a little looser, and I’m saying things I might not most of the time. But the plain and simple truth is that I care about you very much. I know that back in High school you looked up to me a lot.”
“I know you did. A lot of other kids did too, and it sort of went to my head. And I remember once you tried to tell me that you cared about me as a friend. I wasn’t very nice about it.”
“You said it sounded gay.”
Fred shook his head. “I either would not or could not tell another guy that I cared about them, or that they meant a lot to me, or… anything. But now, well, I just want you to know that you’re a real special guy and you touched my life in a significant way. I’ll always be grateful to you for helping me get a passing grade in History class, yet I’m even more appreciative to you for being a true friend.”
I do remember hearing that, and not much else. Soon after I was slipping into deep sleep mode as I could barely make out Fred offering me another drink. I was out like a light, on the express train to dreamland. I got up at 4:30am, ran downstairs and caught a cab, and made it to JFK just in time to get checked in and make my flight on Sept. 11, 2001.
When I landed, I began to hear about what had occurred after I left New York. And when I heard that the first plane had hit the building where Fred worked on the 80th floor, my heart sunk. I had just been in that building the day before, standing up on the observation level. I had missed being there by the skin of my teeth. But what was more important, Fred was there. I spent the entire day on the phone trying to find out if he was OK. I didn’t learn definitively until a few days later that he had died. My heart was broken, and things seemed all topsy-turvy to me. I still can’t make sense of the whole thing to this day, and know there are many, many people out there like me who lost so much that day.
A few years later, when I started the job driving around the country, I began to have a deeper appreciation for America and the people in it. This is a great nation, and I for one am proud to be a citizen here. There is beauty and grace and majesty everywhere you look, and there are a lot of very good folks here with good hearts. I feel very blessed to see more everyday, and to meet more Americans who love it as much as I do and take pride in the USA.